HYPERALLERGIC - Alexis Clements - October 17, 2018 - After nearly a year of renovations, El Museo del Barrio has opened with a show that couldn’t be better suited to this moment: Liliana Porter: Other Situations. A traveling exhibition from the SCAD Museum of Artin Savannah, Georgia, curated by their own Humberto Moro, the show features only 32 works, but they span Porter’s decades-long career and highlight the wry wit and incisive perspective of this artist who deserves more prominence in the US.
From drawing, to prints and photographs, to sculptures, installations, and films, Porter’s work, no matter its form, demands a kind of noticing, a paying attention that, in many ways, can only be done in the context of a museum or a gallery. Like the white void that she places her objects and ideas within, the act of isolation is crucial to the humor and the dark questions that permeate her work.
In a bustling grocery store, stacked high with wares, packed with customers, and filled with the white noise of commerce, you might otherwise never notice a diminutive slice of soft cheese named after a nineteen year old woman who was burned at the stake. Plucked by the ever-vigilant Porter and placed on an open plain in a photograph, one is forced to confront the object on its own terms. What is the flavor of martyrdom? Of betrayal? Of a woman being burned at the stake? Does it pair best with a dark cracker or a crusty loaf?
But it’s not just the cheese. Here, this work is laid out with two others in a triptych. Beside Joan of Arc sits Che Guevara, in this instance rendered by the manufacturer as a “Martyr Mousepad.” On the other side of Joan is a sugar Jesus wrapped in cellophane, paired with another Jesus flipped over to reveal the price and ingredients in this most unholy body of Christ.
Seeing the works and their depicted objects together, a more complex set of meanings unfold, a strange alliance. And also a much thornier inquiry into martyrdom itself. As anti-Muslim sentiment continues to simmer and regularly boil over in the US, it’s virtually impossible in this context not to think of the particular way that news stories describe Muslim individuals being killed or committing suicidal acts of violence in the name of their religious and/or political views, whether in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, or here in the US. The West bends over backwards to paint those acts by Muslims as deeply other, foreign, and backward; as untenable in white, Judeo-Christian nations. Reminders of those moments certainly aren’t on offer in the box stores and supermarkets that line our streets, rendered in sugar, or cream, or foam.
Rather than a cruel sneer or an act of distancing, the darker political and philosophical questions contained in some of Porter’s work draw the viewer in, inviting you to sift through your own trinkets and fallibility. An invitation offered by a child’s toy, or a cheap miniature that feels both familiar and enticing is quite a different thing than a pundit decrying the other side, whichever side it is. Would I have bought that slice of cheese and laughed about it over wine? I might have. How many people walk the streets in t-shirts or paper their walls with images of Che Guevara — a silhouette rendered so meaningless through mass consumerism that many who don his face have no idea who he is or what exactly he did after his youthful motorcycle journey.